By David Ray
It’s March, when college basketball takes center stage and provokes spirited debate about who will make it into tournament play. Team records wrangle for attention, brackets are set, and fierce competition begins.
We get very passionate about who wins and loses. Winning brings bragging rights for fans, revenue for schools, and even professional signing opportunities for the greatest players. For a coach, however, losing badly can mean forfeiting an extended contract or finding a moving van parked in the driveway.
Who wants to be last? The disciples of Jesus certainly didn’t! Once, after a long day, Jesus asked them: “What were you arguing about on the road?” (Mark 9:33). The next verse says they “kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.” Then, “Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, ‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all’” (Mark 9:35). “For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest” (Luke 9:48).
You would think the disciples eventually would have learned this lesson, since it was repeated and modeled so often by Christ. But as the Twelve gathered for a last supper in Jerusalem, a spirit of competition elbowed its way in once again—even after Jesus humbly washed their feet and told them he was about to die for them. With the taste of the bread and wine still fresh on their lips, Luke records, “A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be the greatest” (Luke 22:24).
Jesus, once more, had to set matters straight. He told them, “The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:26). Then he added, “I am among you as one who serves” (v. 27).
We argue about our place in life, too, don’t we? Sometimes we even bring that attitude to this table around which we are now gathered—just like the first disciples did. We look around and compare ourselves to each other. We even wonder which ones Jesus might love the most, while all along he wishes we would learn the all-important lesson that it’s not about clamoring to be first, but choosing to be last. It’s not about who wins, but who willingly loses.
It’s true that being last won’t get you a cushy coaching job or a place in “The Final Four,” but the kingdom of God has never been about competition, but about a cross. It’s not about a greatest win, but a greatest sacrifice.
David Ray serves as dean of Cincinnati (Ohio) Bible Seminary and professor of practical ministries at Cincinnati Christian University.